At LanguageHumanities, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.
Towards the end of his career, William Shakespeare, the English playwright, moved away from plays that could be easily defined as comic or tragic. His final works combined elements of both genres, and are commonly called “tragi-comedy” or romance plays. Four plays are usually classified by experts under the romance heading: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.
These plays have several features in common, and in all four, a long standing conflict or injustice is resolved. Unlike in the tragedies, potentially tragic endings are avoided by redemption or penitence of a flawed character. Romance plays often feature supernatural events, such as the use of magic, and extraordinary events, such as shipwrecks, reuniting of long-lost families and improbable disguises. Unlike the comedies, where endings come about as happy compromises between extremes, romance endings often seem staged or contrived to make every character as happy as possible.
The first of Shakespeare’s plays included in this group is Pericles, believed to be written around 1608. In the play, Pericles is a prince who sails around the world hiding from a wicked, life-long enemy. He marries a foreign princess but is led to believe she dies in childbirth. Pericles is later told by a treacherous friend that his daughter Marina has also died. Through an improbable series of events, including a visitation from the Goddess Diana, he learns that his wife and daughter are actually still alive, and the family is finally reunited.
Cymbaline was changed from its original designation of a tragedy. The story involves Imogen, the daughter of King Cymbeline, who goes into hiding after being falsely accused of adultery. She meets up with her older brothers, who had been kidnapped 20 years before by a man named Belarius in retaliation for his unjust banishment by the king. At the conclusion of the play, nearly every character comes forward with information leading to the discovery of Imogen and Belarius’ innocence and, furthermore, uncovering a plot by Cymbeline’s second wife to kill Imogen and place her own son on the throne. As a result, Imogen and her husband are reunited, peace is declared, and the twin sons are reunited with their family.
The Winter’s Tale is a redemption story set over two decades. King Leontes of Sicilia discovers too late the innocence of his wife Hermione, whom he accused of adultery with his friend King Polixenes of Bohemia. Sixteen years pass, and Leontes continues to mourn his wife and her child, whom he ordered killed. When Polixenes, King of Bohemia, objects to his son Florizel marrying a shepherdess named Perdita, the young couple flees to Sicilia. Strange events conspire to reveal Perdita as Leontes’ lost daughter, reunite Leontes with the magically resurrected Hermione, and join the kingdoms of Sicilia and Bohemia through the marriage of Perdita and Florizel.
In The Tempest — Shakespeare’s final play — Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan returns to power when a provident shipwreck deposits his traitorous brother Antonio on his magical island. The play is considered the most magic-oriented of the romances, as its setting is a magic-filled island populated by sprites, fairies, and a half-fish, half-human monster named Caliban. When Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, falls in love with one of the shipwrecked men, Prospero decides to abandon his magic and return to Milan. His brother repents his crimes and the whole company departs for Italy, leaving Caliban in charge of the island.
The romance plays are not to be taken as realistic, but are rather to be enjoyed for their lush settings and surprise twists. The poetry of the plays is considered by some to be Shakespeare’s most mature and beautiful. Experts are divided as to why Shakespeare left his popular tragedies behind to work in this field, and some scholars suggest he was merely following fashion, but that theory is not universal. Many scholars believe that Shakespeare was planning his retirement from the busy world of London, and through these works, sought a happy ending to his own life.